LOOKING BACK: DAINTREE TIMES
Living over the Daintree River has never been easy, but when Gill and Mick Savage bought their place on Forest Creek Road in 1987 it was even more challenging, as she explained to Pam Willis Burden
There were quite a few dead cows in little run-offs with their feet up in the air. They went way out to sea, and some ended up at Lizard Island. The crocs would have had a good feed
It was a dramatic change from Nottingham, England, where Mick Savage had been a roof tiler. They migrated as Ten Pound Poms in 1970 with seven and six year old daughters and twins aged five .
Once the family had grown up and left home, Gill and Mick bought seven acres on a creek and moved up from Cairns.
Gill loved it. “We ran away to peace and quiet”, she said. The ferry stopped at 6pm, they didn’t have mains power or town water and her shower was attached to the tank outside.
Gradually they improved the place, built a kit home and put a wood stove on the verandah, which kept the moisture down in the house and was great for cooking soup and pizzas.
Almost every night they’d have 10 to 15 inches of rain, and only September was dry.
“There were waterfalls everywhere. It was lovely to experience all this wet.” Gill said.
At first, they had a solar battery system for power “but there was not much sun. So rather than use power on the TV, I’d have three glasses of wine and listen to the birds and the creek.”
Then they put a water turbine in the creek to run 5 amps an hour of power. It was better than solar.
Mick was often away working, and Gill grew tropical fruits like lychees, pineapples, passionfruit, candy red watermelons and pawpaw.
When the Cow Bay pub first opened she took in six watermelons, hoping to sell one. The girl said ‘They’re really big cucumbers’, but the publican bought them all for Christmas.
She didn’t make a living from her fruit. “It was just a hobby to keep me busy and it was a lot of work, raking and mowing the 5 acre paddock. I’m very glad I’m not there now.”
The tourism industry really took off for Daintree in 1988, and Gill was asked to work at the Big Croc Café beside the ferry crossing. She’d start at 7am, making muffins for morning tea for the tour buses and salads for their BBQ lunch at Cape Tribulation.
In March 1996 there was a huge flood.
It had been a dry wet season, which was unusual for Daintree. The wind from the north blew things off the tables at the café and there was a green sky behind Thorntons Peak.
It rained that night “but you were so used to hearing rain, when it stopped you’d think you’d gone deaf”.
And the next day it rained. 13 inches of rain was in the gauge and it kept filling.
The Daintree River was so high, her neighbour Mary Harlow said she could only just see the top of the roof of the café.
Margaret Patterson lived right on the river but left it too late to leave, so she got in a little boat and went from treetop to treetop, hanging on.
Mick Harlow rescued people from their roof near the highway at 10 o’clock at night. The bitumen washed off the road into the paddock.
“During the flooding, the power was still on at the café because the power box was high up and the water hadn’t reached it.
“One young chap, Martin, flicked it off from his boat.
“The freezers were still working so he took the lids off and tipped all the food into the river before it could rot.”
He saw the huge fat gas bottle in the corner twisting round and round in the current, so he let that go, and it wasn’t until after that he thought about crocs. But he said it would have been too busy trying to steer itself to bother about him, and it had ‘chicken wrapped in plastic without feathers’ from the freezers to eat.“
It took over a week for the water to go down, then Dean Clapp who ran the café took everybody over the river to see what was happening and to get the ferry going again.
“We saw the ferry was up on the bank, stuck on a pylon.”
The strong current had broken the ferry cables on the northern side and it swung from its cables on the southern side.
The Big Croc Cafe had a moat of river sand around it. The men shovelled the sand under the ferry to refloat it.
There was very smelly mud behind the plasterboard walls of the café. The freezer was in the trees.
“The area was closed for three weeks but we had never been as busy with the number of people that came up to see what was happening. Of course they all wanted something to eat, but the café hadn’t restocked yet. We gave away the screw top drinks which had mud in the tops.”
Walter Starke, a documentary maker and marine biologist, had water come into his little air-con shed where he stored his films. “It ruined his life’s work. He had 12 ft of water under his house at the very end of Forest Creek Road. They never went back there and Walter went eccentric after that.”
Miraculously nobody drowned and the phone stayed on.
“There were quite a few dead cows in little run-offs with their feet up in the air. They went way out to sea, and some ended up at Lizard Island. The crocs would have had a good feed.”
The butterfly farm was flooded. Dean Clapp had just restocked with butterflies and birds. He had to slit the top of the shade cloth so they could all escape and he never reopened his business, which was on the river’s edge opposite the Tea House.
At the Daintree Eco Lodge, guests were screaming. “Is it supposed to be wet when you put your foot out of bed?” Gill remembers “The guests made their way down to restaurant but when the doors were opened, a terrified pig came in, running through on the timber floor.”
The Big Croc Café finally reopened after about 8 weeks. It had been rewired, and the walls cleared of mud.
The café had been built on Crown land by Billie Lloyd, and at first was called the Trading Post, leased from Douglas Shire Council. Billie also owned the Crocodile Express tourist boat. In 1986/87 Dean Clapp leased the café from Billie and renamed it the Big Croc.
When the Council lease ran out, they wouldn’t renew it, so the café closed at the end of 2000.
The building was removed and is now in Dineen Close, Cooya Beach.
When the café was active, there was a walkway on Crown land that went east on the riverbank, so if tourists didn’t want to cross the river, they could still see mangroves and beautiful big trees. “We didn’t
have a forward-thinking council then. We should do these things for tourists” says Gill.
About 40 people lived around Forest Creek in those days. Joe and Sandy Reichel grew heliconias to sell as cut flowers. They would take them to Cairns airport to be sent all over Australia.
Rod Kennedy grew rambutans and sent them to markets in Japan.
Gill’s rambutans went to Japan for Chinese New Year “but it got harder and harder to keep the lorikeets off. They were drunk from the fruit, worse than cockatoos and flying foxes. When you were picking, they were on your head, on your shoulders, picking your ears.”
Some neighbours worked on Tony Reichart’s banana farm which employed about 25 people plus a few backpackers. It closed a few years ago and the family went to England.
She wished she’d planted her 5 acre paddock with revegetation rather than fruit, especially for the stripy possum. Its long striped tail is twice as long as its body and it looks like a furry snake. It comes out on full moon and sounds like two flying foxes fighting.
“I’d sneak out there in the moonlight with my torch over the other side of the paddock to see them.
I’d lived up there 15 years before I saw a cassowary. It was in the neighbour’s place and she’d throw rotten food out the back because they were a bit hungry in the dry.”
Gill was frightened by pigs and would never walk along the creek on her own. She heard that if they knock you over, they’ll eat you. “They dug up all my sweet potatoes. It was like a D9 bulldozer had been through it. They’re a big, big problem in the rainforest.“
“It was very nice living over there, it was an experience you wouldn’t swap.
“Just to do without things and appreciate what you have. Instead of having the TV and the adverts on, I’d listen to the rain and the birds.
“When you see a truck with a bulldozer you follow it. You get really possessive of your rainforest; you see people who just want to chop it down.”
Gill said “The contentious issue with power over the River wasn’t about not letting people have power, it was about development, so that they could get structures in place to keep what they had before they did the power. I don’t think power could ever come, because you’ve got roads everywhere with sometimes only two people on them. How are you going to give them power at a reasonable cost?”
After Mick passed away, Gill left the Daintree in 2012 and moved to Cooya Beach. “I never locked my doors. I didn’t know where the key was when I sold the place.”
Three of her four children live locally, Debbie (Milla Milla), and twins Maree (Mareeba) and Vincent (Cairns and Weipa). Donna lives in Tasmania. “They’re so close in age, for three weeks in the year I’ve got three kids the same age.”
She couldn’t go back to England. She wouldn’t like to be cold. “If you can’t sit on your veranda at 2 o’clock in the morning in your nightie, I don’t want to be there. When you live somewhere as beautiful as this, it’s hard to leave. I’ve been up here since 1975. It’s home.”
Above: The ferry stuck on a bank after the lood of 1996. Top left: Daintree local Gill Savage. Main: The Big Croc Cafe during the flood. Top right: Mick and Gill. Bottom
right: Repairs underway to the road after the flood.